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By Lynn L. Bergeson

On September 15, 2021, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing on several U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nominees, including Amanda Howe, nominated for Assistant Administrator for Mission Support, and David Uhlmann, nominated for Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

Amanda Howe has a long history of public service, including such roles as the Chief Operating Officer for the now-Vice President, Kamala Harris, for the People Presidential Campaign, Acting Chief of Staff for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Trade for Virginia’s then-Governor Mark R. Warner (D), and lead planner of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip’s royal visit to Virginia for then-Governor Tim Kaine (D). Ms. Howe highlighted her extensive career in operations and management during her opening statements to the Committee, noting that if confirmed, she will bring her personal motto of “go for the good” to her position at EPA.

David Uhlmann is the current Director of the Environmental Policy and Law Program at the University of Michigan Law. Prior to academia, Mr. Uhlmann spent 17 years as a federal prosecutor, including seven years with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes section. During his opening statement, Mr. Uhlmann stressed that his time in academia has strengthened his belief in promoting environmental advocacy, noting that he believes that those companies that display ethics, integrity, and environmental stewardship should not be at a competitive disadvantage to those that do not.

Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Ranking Member of the Committee, asked Ms. Howe how she would transition from the political sphere into governmental management, given President Biden’s initiative to bolster EPA staff. Ms. Howe reiterated her operations management background, noting that throughout her career in public service, she has managed large and complex operations and can think of no better way to serve the public than through the EPA. Senator Capito then asked Mr. Uhlmann about a paper he had written for the Obama Administration. The paper addressed the Clean Energy Standard and carbon taxing, but excluded carbon capture and nuclear energy. Senator Capito questioned how Mr. Uhlmann’s stance on the Clean Energy Standard would align with his EPA nominated role. Mr. Uhlmann responded that while he felt that we need to be seriously addressing climate change, it is the role of Congress to decide how. He stated that his role within EPA would be to help companies comply with any laws that Congress passes and any regulations promulgated by EPA, as well as to bring enforcement actions against companies that violate those laws.

Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) questioned Mr. Uhlmann about his stance on a recent series of White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council recommendations that stated that federal support for technologies such as carbon capture, utilization, and storage were not suitable for Environmental Justice (EJ) communities. Mr. Uhlmann responded that both EJ communities and rural communities have been left behind, and that if confirmed, he would work with states to ensure both communities had access to clean air and water. Senator Lummis and Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) each probed Mr. Uhlmann about respective projects that their states were working on with EPA, and asked for a commitment from Mr. Uhlmann that those projects would not go to the wayside. Mr. Uhlmann responded that he believed strongly in a state and federal partnership and that he would work to strengthen that relationship.

Closing the nominations hearing, Committee Chair Thomas Carper (D-DE) asked each nominee a series of questions, including his standard “what question were you not asked that you wish you had been?” Senator Carper posed three questions to Ms. Howe: what attributes of Governor Mark Warner and Governor Tim Kaine did you witness and learn during your time as a public servant; how would you plan on safely bringing the EPA workforce back into the office; and given EPA’s prior cybersecurity breaches, how would you lead EPA’s cybersecurity efforts? Ms. Howe reflected on her time serving each Governor and noted that Mark Warner had the ability to pay attention to detail while still maintaining an eye on the big picture. In her role as EPA Assistant Administrator for Mission Support, she would work to incorporate these lessons by building strong relationships regardless of political party, so that common ground can be found for the common good. From Tim Kaine, Ms. Howe observed that kindness is a strength, and that challenges should be approached with openness, kindness, and integrity.

Ms. Howe expressed concern for the EPA workforce and the challenges they face in keeping themselves and their families safe during Covid. When considering bringing EPA staff back to the office, Ms. Howe stressed the importance of following the science and following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. In considering how to move forward, Ms. Howe stated she would use EPA as the resource that it is and consult with staff to understand what aspects of teleworking have been successful. She noted that people’s lives have changed, and reintegrating back to the office will take empathy, openness, and a willingness to listen to concerns. In her response to cybersecurity concerns, Ms. Howe stated that this is an issue that has been and will continue to be a top priority for Mission Support. If confirmed, she plans to work directly with the EPA’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Operating Officer (COO) to identify and sharpen cybersecurity. She also noted that she has no reservations in speaking openly with Congress and to ask for the resources and tools that she needs to tighten EPA cybersecurity measures. The question Ms. Howe would have liked to be asked was “how do you feel about your nomination to the role of Assistant Administrator for Mission Support?” She feels excited. She is looking forward to recruiting new staff to EPA and feels that it is a vibrant and exciting place to work.

Senator Carper’s closing questions to Mr. Uhlmann included: what in your extensive experience prosecuting environmental crimes and enforcement actions can you bring to this position in helping EPA identify and prevent violations before they occur; and what question were you not asked that you wish you had been? Mr. Uhlmann discussed his long history as a prosecutor working with the career staff of EPA in trials, as well as his collaborative work alongside EPA civil attorneys. Mr. Uhlmann emphasized his deep appreciation for the career staff at EPA, highlighting that unlike his predecessors, he is not new to this area and can “hit the ground running.” Overall, Mr. Uhlmann focused on the need for response. The most salient lesson he observed from his time as a prosecutor is that pollution has real consequences on the lives of Americans and their communities.

Mr. Uhlmann would have liked to have been asked what his top priorities would be as Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. He focused on the threat of climate change and the effects that environmental harms have on communities, stating that these concerns should be at the root of enforcement and compliance actions. He went on to address staffing issues within EPA enforcement and compliance regional offices, and the advocacy he would engage in to procure the necessary resources to strengthen those offices. Maintaining that we cannot regulate our way out of every environmental problem, Mr. Uhlmann focused on the importance of promoting ethics, integrity, and environmental stewardship within the business community to help solve these problems. Rounding out his list of priorities, Mr. Uhlmann stated that there is no room for politics in enforcement, rather it is about the law and the facts.

Commentary

The hearing proceeded with a jovial atmosphere and at times felt almost routine in nature. There were no real surprises or hard hitting questions posed to either nominee. Senator Mark Kelly (D-AZ) posed only one question to Mr. Uhlmann, centered on the niche issue of Clean Air Act (CAA) violations for modifying street vehicle emissions systems to convert them to racing vehicles. Senator Kelly expressed concern over how this statutory prohibition hampered the sport of street racing in Arizona. Mr. Uhlmann pivoted to his work on the VW emissions case and the environmental consequences of that scandal, but did not commit to a stance on Senator Kelly’s proposed amendments to the CAA. The line of questioning then diverted towards Senator Kelly’s wife, Gabby Gifford, and her love of street motorcycle racing. The hearing itself incorporated a decent amount of story-telling on behalf of the Committee members, adding to a sense of collegiality. Throughout the hearing, both nominees emanated passion for their possible future roles within EPA and focused on collaboration as a necessary element moving forward.


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson and Carla N. Hutton
 
On June 14, 2021, the Senate confirmed by voice vote Michal Freedhoff to be the Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As reported in our January 22, 2021, blog item, Freedhoff was onboarded in January 2021 as Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. On April 14, 2021, President Joseph Biden nominated Freedhoff for Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. According to Biden’s announcement, Freedhoff has more than 20 years of government experience, most recently as the Minority Director of Oversight for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. She began her Congressional service in 1996 in then-Representative Ed Markey’s (D-MA) office as a Congressional Science and Engineering fellow after receiving a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Rochester. Freedhoff also served on the staffs of the House Science Committee, the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the House Natural Resources Committee. The announcement states that Freedhoff’s legislative work includes the 2016 re-authorization of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), 2019 legislation to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination, the fuel economy provisions in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, and a law requiring the creation of an online database of potential consumer product safety defects.


 

By  Lynn L. Bergeson 
 
On May 25, 2021, U.S. Senators Deb Fischer (R-NE) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) introduced the bipartisan Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) Integrity Act of 2021. Aiming to provide more certainty to rural America, this legislation would require that small refineries petition for RFS hardship exemptions by June 1 of each year. According to Senator Fischer, the RFS Integrity Act of 2021 would ensure that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) properly accounts for exempted gallons in the annual Renewable Fuel Obligations (RVO) it sets every November. The legislation would also require that EPA publish the name of the refinery and volume that is exempted at the same time that the refiner receives the exemption.


 

By  Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.
 
On May 25, 2021, U.S. Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and House Representatives Randy Feenstra (R-IA), Ashley Hinson (R-IA), and Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA) joined forces in a letter to urge President Biden to uphold his promise to support biofuels in the next four years. Criticizing President Biden’s efforts under the American Jobs Plan for failing to include investments in biofuels, the letter states that “advancements in biofuels can drive biofuels towards being carbon neutral or even carbon negative – something electric vehicles cannot achieve.” According to the representatives, President Biden’s American Jobs Plan focuses on investments in electric vehicles rather than supporting biofuels as a solution to reduce carbon emissions. The letter also urges President Biden to support the biofuels industry through strong Renewable Volume Obligations (RVO) for 2021, 2022, and beyond under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). The letter concludes with the following statement: “Biofuels should not be treated as a transition fuel, but prioritized as a fuel of the future.”


 

By  Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.

On April 5, 2021, U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Joni Ernst (R-IA), introduced a $500 million bill on biofuels infrastructure.  The bill, titled the Renewable Fuel Infrastructure Investment and Market Expansion Act, would create a grant program to aid fuel retailers in streamlining sales of fuels with higher ethanol blends.  These infrastructure grants would be available for five years.  Senator Klobuchar highlighted that "[d]iversifying our fuel supply and introducing higher blends of biofuels in the market are great steps forward as we work to promote clean energy technologies and invest in transportation infrastructure.”  She also stated that this legislation would highly benefit the economy and the environment by making cleaner fuels more accessible.


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson 

On August 4, 2020, U.S. Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) voted against Mark Menezes, who is nominated to become Deputy Secretary of Energy. In a statement, both Senators said that “[g]iven the uncertainty with the ‘gap year’ small refinery waivers, the wasted time and resources to score the waivers again, the lack of transparency in the entire process, and most importantly, the toll this has taken on Iowa’s farmers and biofuel producers, we could not in good faith support Mr. Menezes at this time.” The two Senators are pushing the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for increased transparency and certainty for Iowa’s farmers and producers, asking for information on DOE’s scoring of small refinery waiver petitions. They are also requesting information on when the score recommendation was transmitted back to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the statement, concerns continue to arise as DOE reviews petitions that have already been reviewed, wasting valuable time and resources to score the petitions again. A letter by the two formerly mentioned Senators has been submitted to Mr. Menezes further expressing their constituents’ concerns. The full text of the letter can be accessed here.


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.

On July 23, 2020, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was passed by the U.S. Senate; it includes the bipartisan Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act of 2019, led by U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and co-sponsored by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). Introduced to the Senate in December 2019, the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act of 2019 establishes an interagency working group (IWG) led by the Office of Science and Technology Policy to coordinate federal programs and activities in support of sustainable chemistry. The IWG will develop a roadmap for sustainable chemistry with a framework of attributes characterizing sustainable chemistry, assess the state of sustainable chemistry in the United States, and identify methods by which federal agencies can incentivize sustainable chemistry activities, challenges to sustainable chemistry progress, and opportunities for expanding federal sustainable chemistry efforts. Senator Coons celebrated the victory by stating that this “is an exciting opportunity to maintain our scientific leadership and ensure the sustainability of our chemical enterprise for years to come.”


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson

On May 21, 2020, U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) introduced a bill directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary to establish a renewable feedstock reimbursement program. Aiming to support biofuel producers that have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, this bill can be cited as the Renewable Fuel Feedstock Reimbursement Act of 2020. Under the reimbursement program, biofuel producers will be reimbursed for their feedstock purchases from January 1, 2020, through March 31, 2020, through the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC). Eligible parties will consist of those that produce renewable fuel used as transportation fuel and eligible feedstocks mean renewable biomass intended for production of the aforementioned renewable fuel. Furthermore, to be eligible to receive reimbursements, eligible entities must enter into an agreement with the USDA Secretary.

The two U.S. Senators initially introduced this idea in April 2020 as an amendment to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stabilization (CARES) Act, which assists the biofuels industry sector. Assistance, however, was not included in the CARES Act package. Senators Klobuchar and Grassley, with industry support, now hope that this second attempt in support of the biofuels industry follows through.


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson

On May 15, 2020, U.S. Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced the Bioeconomy Research and Development Act of 2020, creating a federal research initiative to ensure continued United States leadership in engineering biology. The National Engineering Biology Research and Development Initiative would focus on the advancement of societal well-being, national security, sustainability, and economic productivity and competitiveness. It would accomplish these goals through:

  • Advancement of areas of research at the intersection of biological, physical, chemical, data, and computational sciences;
  • Advancement of areas in biomanufacturing research;
  • Support of social and behavioral sciences and economics research that advances the field of engineering biology;
  • Improvement of the understanding of the engineering biology;
  • Support of risk research;
  • Development of novel tools and technologies to accelerate scientific understanding and technological innovation in engineering biology;
  • Expansion of the number of researchers, educators, and students with engineering biology training;
  • Acceleration of the translation and commercialization of engineering biology research and development by the private sector; and
  • Improvement of the interagency planning and coordination of federal government activities related to engineering biology.

According to Senator Rubio, the Bioeconomy Research and Development Act of 2020 has been endorsed by a number of leading research institutes, including the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), a Biobased and Renewable Products Advocacy Group (BRAG®) member.


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.

On April 6, 2020, 15 United States Senators submitted a bipartisan letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary, Sonny Perdue, requesting the use of its authority to assist the biofuels industry’s economic circumstances brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Highlighting the negative impacts of the pandemic on farmers and producers who will bear the impact of the decrease in consumption, in the letter, the Senators have also taken the opportunity to criticize the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to implement the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Specifically, the letter states that EPA has failed “to implement the RFS in accordance with the law, including its issuance of illegal small refinery waivers and enforcement of ethanol blending requirements.” The lack of proper implementation of RFS combined with the COVID-19 crisis, according to the Senators, further negatively impact the rural communities and employment rates in their respective home states.

Given these circumstances, the 15 signatories of the letter ask that USDA considers the allocation of additional funds provided to the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stabilization (CARES) Act to assist the biofuels industry sector. Assistance would be helpful in the format of reimbursements for feedstocks and additional CCC funds to the Higher-Blends Infrastructure Incentive Program to drive future biofuel demand. Although, Secretary Purdue has not yet responded to the aforementioned request, the biofuels industry is hopeful.


 
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